December 26, 2008


I have become obsessed with curries of late, greatly aided by a neighbor, who cooks a different style of curry every week. Now that I have most of the spices necessary to making a majority of dishes (you have no idea how difficult it is to come across coriander and fenugreek), I would like to try some of these dishes.

My first experience with curry is through my father. South African of English origin, he would concoct a stew of lamb with amazing spices that would linger in the house for days. One would ladle the stew over rice, and pair it with bits and pieces of raisins, bananas, coconut, and chutneys. My grandmother was born in India of course, but I never did get to query her about her life experience before she passed.

Then my next real experience with curry was in Congo, where there was an authentic Indian restaurant overlooking a dilapidated part of the city, hinting to its former grandeur. The butter chicken there was thick, and rich, the chicken unbearably tender. It made you wonder how courageous foreign families are, to settle in Congo, so fare from everything they know and love.

My father lent me two Cooking books over Christmas. They were written some 40 – 60 years ago, and their lack of political correctness can be a bit embarrassing at times:

1-Curries of India – Harvey Day

He bought the book in India, on one of his trips there. The book was published in 1955, 8 years after it won independence from British rule. As Lois Daish explains “It was back then that I came across my first recipe for kheema in Curries of India, by Harvey Day in collaboration with Sarojini Mudnani. This little book, published in 1955, was written for English readers so Day needed to explain that curry was more than a single dish and that it didn’t have to be hot enough to take the skin off your tongue. He also went to some length to persuade the locals that curries are good for the health, contrary to the impression given by “purple-faced, curry-eating colonels who retire to rural England and vent their spleen on the natives”. He blamed the whisky. ”

The pages are blackening because it wasn’t printed on acid-free paper, so I flip the pages delicately before giving you these gems:

An English guest at my club, the Indian Gymkhana, at Osterley, was given a dish of curry compounded by the hands of experts. ‘Very tasty’ was his comment, ‘but of course, this is not the real stuff. I had some curry in Bombay in ’42 which was so hot it well nigh took the skin off my tongue. That was real curry.’

Far be it for me to disillusion anyone. It would have taken far too long and in any case his mind was made up. He had tasted the genuine article—only once mind you—but now he was an authority. He knew, and he wouldn’t be put off by base substitutes.

This book is not for the likes of them.


Generally speaking, the English don’t make good cooks. Not because the culinary art is beyond them, for when the English turn their hands to anything, there are few of any races who excel them. Except perhaps the Scots. […]

But cooking, like gardening, needs ‘green fingers’. Two people can follow the same instructions, and yet achieve different results. Boiled rice, for instance, is the easiest dish in the world to cook. When ready, the water drained away, it should be white and fluffy, each grain separate from the others. Yet one woman I know failed to produce perfectly boiled rice for 18 years, although I showed her time and again how it was done. Either it was too hard or it came out a revolting, glutinous mass. One day, however, by pure chance she succeeded, and ever since her rice has been just right.

2-Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays – Hilda Gerber

I imagine my father bought this book in Durban (a little sticker on this inside says so). The publishers explain that they published this book with practical no change. Ms. Gerber completed it in 1949, and it was found amongst her paper after she died in January 1954. I remember having a succulent green curry with coconut milk, in a hotel in Capetown, overlooking steep cliffs, and pinguins frolicking in the rolling waves.

Cape Malays are one of the many ethnic groups found in South Africa. According to wikipedia “The Cape Malay community is an ethnic group or community in South Africa, taking its name from what is now known as the Western Cape of South Africa and the people originally from the Malay archipelago, mostly Javanese from Indonesia and Malays from Malaysia, who started this community in South Africa. The Malays were outcast by the British Government, which were then rulers of Malaysia. The community's earliest members were slaves brought by the Dutch East India Company, followed shortly thereafter by political dissidents and Muslim religious leaders who opposed the Dutch presence in what is now Indonesia.”

The book explains:

Malay housewives are conscientious cooks. Some of them turn out lighter pastries, spongier koesisters than others, some seasons more subtly, but all pay close attention to the details of their art. Malay delight in eating. Feasts are part of their religious tradition, and they honour their tradition bu demanding that food should have a flavour – rahter aromatic than hot. […] Malay (were) the most sought after by the colonist. They shared the homes of their masters-a circumstance which affected in a high degree the alimentary customs of both master and slave.


The husband is the undisputed master of a Malay house, and to please him is a part of a Malay’s religious teaching. This is to a cetain extent responsible for her conscientious application to her household duties.

She then goes on to describe, in great detail, the lifestyle of the Cape Malay regarding religious festivals (Cape Malay are muslims); family celebrations including etiquette, the naming of a child, birthdays and anniversaries, weddings, funeral feast; and betel-chewing. The recipes that follow are short and to the point.

This makes me want to travel so badly!

1 comment:

Astrogirl said...

Hi Dorothee,
I have that same Malay cookbook as your dad! I really like Malay curries - they tend to be sweeter than Indian ones. Last time we were in Cape Town we went to a great restaurant in the Malay Quarter.